Panning - When to pan and top panning tips

Panning is a technique usually applied to action images to convey a sense of movement. It involves keeping your camera shutter speed low and moving the camera in the direction the subject is travelling in.

Executed correctly the subject remains sharp whilst the background and any static objects in the frame are streaked across the frame in a smooth blur.

Panning can be used to provide a sense of movement to your pictures; for creative effect and to smooth the background adding further focus on your subject.

Whatever your intention, panning is a great skill to have and the secret to achieving an impressive pan is…. practice. Panning requires good camera control so there is no substitute for experience. Good panning subjects to practice on are track sports as you get many attempts to hone your skills as they pass by each lap.

Next we review some examples of what to look out for in your panning shots.

Action-Panning-Karts-SpeedISO100, 1/30s, f/29

In this attempt the first thing to notice is that there isn’t a sharp point in the photo. Ideally in this image the driver’s helmet would be pin sharp. Look at the white streaks at the bottom of the kart, they give you an indication of the movement of the camera, too much horizontal movement, better technique is required here. Also look at the background, the white fence is distracting and not pleasant to look at, look for locations that produce distraction-free backgrounds.

Action-Panning-Karts-BlurrISO100, 1/15s, f/22

In this image the background is much improved, clean with no distractions. This time there was too much vertical movement by the camera during the pan; the white streaks at the bottom of the kart go in an upward direction. When panning it is essential you keep the camera movement in the same plane as the movement of travel.

Action-Panning-Blurr-Smoke ISO100, 1/40s, f/25

In this image speeding up the shutter speed improved the chances of getting the subject sharp; changing shooting position has eradicated the distracting background and improved the composition by allowing space for the car to move into. The kart is sharp whilst the background blurred in the direction of travel, a decent shot. This shot also captures the driver in a forward aggressive position, accelerating hard and producing exhaust smoke, both which add to the sense of fast movement.

Setting-up the camera

Switch to Shutter Priority or full Manual Mode and select your shutter speed. The speed depends on a number of factors; how fast your subject is moving, the distance between you and your subject, the lens you are using and how much of a blur effect you want to achieve. Start with a shutter speed such as 1/60th and lower it as you get more comfortable with the action. Don’t forget to switch off your lens stabiliser (unless you are shooting with a lens with a mode 2 function, if so use this)

Action-Panning-Two-Karting-RacingISO100 1/30s f/8

Panning is a great way to add interest to an action image in overcast conditions. Using a wider lens and standing closer to the track produced a shot, which really draws the viewer into the action.

Focus in advance

To prevent your camera refocusing during the pan, pre-focus your lens. Decide where you want to capture the subject and focus your camera; then switch the lens to manual focus.

As the subject approaches, watch the motion carefully through the viewfinder, place an AF square on the subject and keep tracking them through the viewfinder as it moves in front of you. Using a smooth motion swing the camera in the direction of travel being careful to minimise vertical movement. Using continuous shooting press the shutter well before the subject reaches your pre-focussed position and take a series of shots until your subject has passed through your intended shooting spot.

Check the image on the camera screen if your subject is perfectly in focus and the background a smooth silky blur, consider it a job well done. Although, chances are, you will want another go!

Action-Panning-Downhill-SkierBiathlon – Contamines Monjo, Serge Kairis

A good example of a panned shot with a cross country skier by Serge Kairis Again the point of most interest, in this case the skier’s face, is visible and sharp.

Action-Panning-Two-GeeseCanada Geese flying low, Roland Bogush

Here is a good example of how slight panning can create a good effect. Photographer Roland Bogush has applied a small movement to the camera, smoothing out the water and adding a small amount of blur to the geese’s wing tips.

Action-Cyclist-Following-Car-Head-OnVoluntad, Sergio Rodriguez Garcia

Here is a great example of a panned shot using a different technique. Photographer Sergio Rodriguez Garcia probably shot this from a vehicle or a remote camera that was moving in front of the cyclist. The speed of the moving camera has created blur in the scenery leaving the subject sharp in the middle.

Find the perfect lens for your action photography in the Canon Store.

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